A Simple Guide to Setting Priorities and Increasing Productivity
We all have too many priorities. There’s a word for it.
Overwhelmed . . .
- Work Responsibilities
- School / Study
- Home Obligations
- Personal Life
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s no surprise.
You try to set priorities straight and juggle all your roles and responsibilities. But, at the end of the day, you’re exhausted and only half the work is complete.
You’re just not getting things done.
So, you start getting up earlier and working later. Then you start working on the weekends. It’s still not enough.
Now, imagine the total opposite—a day where you start with 3 priorities. That’s right—just 3.
You get those 3 things done by the end of the day and you feel good about it. And, those 3 things moved you significantly closer to your goal. It could be a life goal or a work goal.
Imagine you repeat this day after day, week after week, for an entire month. You’re successfully completing your top three priorities every day, zero procrastination.
What impact would that have on your business—your life?
If you’re like me, it makes all the difference in the world.
So, how do you get there?
How do you reduce a tidal wave of tasks down to just 3 priorities each day? And, can doing just 3 things really make an impact?
Yes, it can!
Let’s start with the principles that make it possible.
- Step 1: Get Clarity
- Step 2: Truly Commit
- Step 3: Reset Each Morning
- Step 4: Stay Human
Get Clarity: Obvious, right—but not easy. How do you get clear on which 3 things are most important?
Truly Commit: Another obvious one. So, why do we fail at this every day?
Reset Each Morning: Every day is a battle; we win some and lose some. Each day we need to apply lessons learned and get a fresh start. It’s harder than it sounds.
Stay Human: Priority setting has lost the human element. The only way to succeed to is to restore it. We’re not robots.
Each one of these steps could be considered obvious or worse, simple platitudes.
It’s easy to say, “Get clarity, commit, reset and stay human.” But, we’re not doing it. We’re failing.
We need help, a method, procedure, or guide—a way to make sure we’re on track.
When we follow the 4 steps and learn to execute, finishing 3 things can make our productivity skyrocket.
I’m not suggesting productivity hacks.
A hack is a trick to gain leverage without putting in the work. It’s a way to beat the system.
Let’s not lie to ourselves. This takes effort. For some of you, this might be a fundamental shift in the way you approach your work.
If you’re up for the challenge, keep reading.
Step 1: Get Clarity
Can just 3 priorities per day accomplish anything significant? Yes!
But, you must be clear on which 3 things you choose.
If you analyze an average day, you’ll realize how much of it is spent on things that are NOT a priority. From a productivity perspective, it was a disaster.
What going on—why are we not working on the right things?
Let’s get clarity on what is a priority
What are Priorities?
Priority Setting is simply determining what task needs to occur 1st, then 2nd, 3rd, in order to reach a goal. It’s the old expression, First Things First.
Most of my examples may sound business related. But, the concepts are the same for any of your responsibilities, whether job-related or setting priorities in your life.
Goals in Many Forms
- Work Goals
- School Goals
- Home Goals
- Personal Growth Goals
- Life Goals
If we’re going to achieve these goals, we need priorities.
For example, if you want to answer your important emails, you can’t start reading 500 unread email messages from the top down and work your way down.
By the time you find the important ones it will be too late.
We need a method, system or process to figure out what’s most important and to prioritize those items.
Setting priorities may not guarantee success, but without a process, we’re almost guaranteed to fail.
How do we do this when we have two dozen items that feel like they should be priority #1?
You start by having a clear picture of your end goal for your project.
- The release of a software app
- The launch of an advertising campaign
- The booking of 10 new clients
- The loss of 50 pounds with diet and exercise
Note: Each of these goals is specific. It’s not a description such as “work on the new app”. That isn’t a well-defined goal.
We need to have clarity on the goal, so we can test our priority tasks to see if they are moving us toward the goal or moving us away.
There are lots of methods for ranking the priority of tasks.
But, there isn’t one that’s the perfect for every environment. Here’s a quick review of several methods so you can see which one fits your situation.
Ad Hoc Priority Setting
In less formal settings, selecting one of these criteria may be all you need to consider.
What Gets Priority
- The Biggest Financial Impact
- The Task You Have Time to Complete
- Promises to Your Boss
- Promises to a Customer
- Complaints That are the Loudest
Let’s assume you have 5 different tasks and each one fits neatly into these 5 categories. Which one gets the highest priority.
Now, answer the question, WHY?
Try to challenge your initial response and look it from multiple perspectives. Is there a scenario where a different answer makes sense?
If you want a more structured approach to challenge your initial response, try the 6-Hats Methodology.
Edward de Bono (noted expert in critical thinking) developed this method back in the 1980s, but it still seems relevant today.
Here’s the gist. When you’re evaluating the best course of action and the answer isn’t obvious, look at the situation in 6 ways.
White Hat: Evaluate all the data and reach a conclusion from a purely logical analytical approach.
Red Hat: What is your intuition telling you? Try to understand why you have this gut instinct.
Black Hat: Look at the conclusion you reached with the White Hat and the Red Hat and think of all the ways those plans could go wrong and turn into a disaster.
Yellow Hat: Look at the conclusion you reached with the White Hat and the Red Hat and think of all the ways those plans could go result in massive success.
Green Hat: Get creative. Think of a variation of your White and Red Hat solutions. Then look for entirely new radical approaches. Subject these new ideas to the Black and Yellow Hat analysis.
Blue Hat: This is the executive control and decision-making hat. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of each solution and decide which one will be implemented. It’s a balance of the best upside potential and acceptable risk.
Sometimes we do this instinctively. But, when we add structure we get better results.
Formal Project Management
If you’re operating under formal project management (Gantt charts, timelines, resource planning . . .) the project plan will largely determine the way you should spend your time each day. This may dictate your 3 priorities.
If you’re the project manager, you’re weighing a dozen or more considerations and make it all fit together to meet the target date.
Make sure everyone on the team knows what’s expected and why.
This technique is attributed to former US President Dwight Eisenhower.
Start by creating a 2 x 2 matrix. You can draw this on paper or use any digital format that’s convenient, such as a spreadsheet or a table in a text document.
Label the two columns: Urgent & Not Urgent.
Label the two rows: Important & Not Important.
You have 4 quadrants. Place the items on your to-do list into the appropriate column.
Anything in the quadrant that is the intersection of Important and Urgent is your priority.
This is the familiar 80/20 rule. It’s commonly accepted that 80% of sales come from 20% of your customers or products. Likewise, 80% of the progress toward your goal may come from 20% of the tasks on your to-do list.
If your schedule doesn’t have anything that must be delivered to an internal or external customer, choose the tasks that are going to have the biggest impact.
Batching Your Priorities
Another way to boost efficiency is to perform similar tasks back-to-back. Once you’re in a certain mindset, there’s less mental shifting if you stay in one mental mode.
Let’s say you need to prepare a budget in a spreadsheet and it’s due by 9.00 AM. That’s your #1 priority. You finish the budget on-time and decide to go ahead and complete some sales forecasts that aren’t due for another two days.
But, you decide to go ahead and complete the work now because it’s a similar mindset as the prior task and it relies on the same data. It’s fresh in your mind and the sheets are already open on your PC.
It will probably take just 30 minutes. If you wait a few days, it will take you an hour because the first 30 minutes will just be getting up to speed.
This is an approach for anyone that is especially risk-averse.
If you have a task in your plan that you have never done before or based on past experiences you know it could become a problem, do it first.
Nothing screws up a plan worse than a task that takes 4 weeks to complete when you scheduled it for 4 hours.
If you start those risky items first, there may be time to recover.
Why it Goes Wrong
Regardless of the method you choose, the #1 issue with priorities is an overly optimistic perspective of the time and effort required to complete a task.
It could be simply underestimating the degree of difficulty or you got delayed by late information from other people. You may have been promised resources that never arrived or your time and resources were diverted by so-called fire-drills.
Creating a plan and determining priorities is time-consuming. Sometimes we cut the process short, create a quick plan and start the work.
This is one way to avoid the dreaded paralysis by analysis. But, it also leaves a lot of uncertainty on the table.
If you take this approach, don’t put a lot of faith in your final completion date. Build in some slack.
The methods described above are some of the traditional ways we determine what is a priority task and what can wait another day.
If you’re not sure which methodology fits your situation, just choose one and learn from the experience.
Regardless of which method you choose, you must remain clear on the ultimate goal.
In a large project, we often get lost in the gory details and lose sight of the big picture. Tasks grow and create subtasks and more subtasks until they take on a life of their own.
Smaller projects are subject to overwhelming a small team or solopreneurs. And, before you know it, you’re swamped and have lost sight of the goal.
With the end goal clearly in mind, pick 3 priorities.
If you still have 12 items that feel like they could be top priorities, try this checklist.
Task Clarity Checklist
- Review your end goal or objective.
- If your primary goal is months away, choose a short-term milestone, something 1 or 2 weeks away. Document it in your journal or another convenient place for a quick reminder.
- Make sure the end goal and short-term milestone are still relevant and haven’t changed since they were established.
- Update both the end goal and milestone as needed.
- Question: Are my priority tasks still relevant? (If I eliminate this task, will it matter?)
- When our goal changes, some tasks become unnecessary.
- Question: Why must this task be completed this week or day?
- Is it really important and urgent?
- Question: What would happen if I scheduled this task later?
- Understand the real impact.
- Question: Will the time I spend on this task prevent me from working on something that is more critical?
- This helps ensure the most urgent items are at the top of the list.
If you still have too many items competing for the top 3, just choose 3 and get to work.
If you get those competed early, you can always add more tasks to the same day.
Step 2: Truly Commit
Once you’ve gone through the process of establishing your priorities, you simply execute them and every project is a success.
It never happens.
I already mentioned how tasks are chronically underestimated in scope. That’s the #1 reason projects get derailed. The #2 reason is that we’re not actually working on the priority items. We’re doing something else: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, new feeds . . .
The remedy for all the issues is commitment and focus.
Does it Really Matter?
When tasks start running behind schedule, you can either adjust everything and push out the date you finish the end goal—or, you can double-down.
Does the end goal really matter?
If it does, then you’ll start work on it first thing in the morning. You might ignore all other tasks for a day or two. It might require late nights.
You may need to get outside help.
If the goal really matters, get creative and work your ass off.
You may be working diligently for long hours on your project. But, are you working efficiently.
Do you pop-over to Facebook every few minutes when you see an alert. What about Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.
Working like this destroys your efficiency. If you find yourself working long hours, it’s entirely possible you could get the work done by 5:00 if you were not multi-tasking.
Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain is actually switching back-and-forth. You don’t have a quad processor in your brain like it’s a personal computer.
If you don’t have the willpower to ignore the distractions, shut them down while you’re working so you can’t get any alerts.
That alone will take some willpower. After 30 minutes you’ll start to wonder if some breaking news has occurred that you need to know.
You DON’T NEED a NEWS UPDATE EVERY 30 MINUTES unless you’re in the news business.
Once you develop the willpower to single task, you’ll be surprised how it impacts the efficiency and quality of your work.
When you get super focused you get into the flow state and that’s when your best work happens. You lose track of time and space and just produce.
If you want to get really serious, take up a practice like meditation or yoga and it will further increase your ability to focus.
Earlier I said you can succeed by completing 3 tasks each day. What not 4, 5 or a dozen.
If you are going to truly commit and get super focused, is that compatible with doing 12 things in a day?
Assuming you take a few breaks, that’s only about 30 minutes per task. You can’t really get deeply focused and deep into the work and achieve a flow state in30 minutes.
Pick 3 critical items that pass the test of your checklist. Make the scope reasonable to complete in a day. If one of the items is too large, you have a choice.
Define your goal as 50% of that task or make it the only task of the day.
If you get super-efficient and finish the 3 items my noon, knock out a few more essential tasks in the afternoon and it’s a win-win.
Step 3: Reset Each Morning
Each day it’s time to reset your 3 priorities.
The New Top 3
Assuming you completed the prior day’s top 3, pick a new top 3 for the current day.
If some (or all) of the tasks are still in work, it’s time to figure out what happened.
Deconstruct the Prior Day
Each day is an opportunity to learn from the prior day. As difficult as it sounds, we learn more from our failures. Here’s a check to help you figure out what happened.
Checklist for Deconstruction
- If the Top 3 are NOT COMPLETED:
- Was the scope to large?
- Were there too many distractions?
- Unforeseen fire-drills/
Document the cause of the dealy to the best of your ability. What will you change for the next day that tp avoid repeating the same error?
- If the Top 3 are COMPLETED:
- What was the primary reason for success?
- Can this be repeated routinely?
Document your plan for the current day. Try to get a lesson learned from each day.
Start Tomorrow Today
Many people like to conduct this daily analysis at the end of the current day. This includes identifying the Top 3 tasks for the next day.
This gives you a head start the next morning. No time is wasted getting down to work.
Another trick is to start the first task for the next day, then stop. If it’s the right type of task (where you can start and stop easily), this gives you another head start to get momentum the next day.
This is an old writer’s trick attributed to Ernest Hemingway. At the end of his writing day, he would start a scene and stop halfway.
This gave him an instant place to start the next day and minimized the startup time and potential for writer’s block.
Step 4: Stay Human
So far, everything we’ve covered seems entirely logical. If the execution of the plan only involved computers, we would be in great shape.
But, it’s not. The execution is done by humans and this introduces a lot of variabilities.
Here are some suggestions that take the human element into account and increase your odds of success.
Optimize Your Environment
This requires a degree of self-awareness. Depending on your mood and energy level and the nature of the work, any of the following may be an optimal environment.
- Coffee shop
- Total isolation
- Total Silence
- With food or not
- With drink or not
- With caffeine or not
Learn to be sensitive to what works and optimize your environment to get into your flow state most efficiently.
Hardest Things First
Some people always start the day with their hardest task. This is driven by the assumption that it will require the most cognitive and emotional energy. So, there’s no way the task will get finished if you start later in the day.
This assumes our emotional and cognitive energy is a finite resource and gets re-charged every night.
Not everyone agrees with that theory.
Regardless, if you start work on the hardest item it may give you slack in case your estimate of the time required is way off.
Mix-Up the Work Types
If you’ve spent the entire morning crunching numbers in spreadsheets, that logical, rational mode of thinking may need a break.
If you have options for the afternoon tasks, you might be more productive if you chose work that utilizes the emotive intuitive part of the brain. Something such as revising the graphics on a web page or a brochure layout would be a good change of mental mode.
Keeping Confidence High
One of the things rarely discussed is the emotional state and the level of confidence of the person doing the work.
We talked about matching the environment to your state of mind and type of work.
What if your state of mind is a wreck? It’s hard to put this factor into a spreadsheet or Gantt chart.
If you’re having trouble getting yourself into an optimal state of mind each day, you need a morning routine. This may consist of things like the following:
- Crazy Dancing
- Cold Shower
- Motivational Videos
- Reading News Headlines
This is just a partial list. Some of these things put one person in an optimal frame of mind, but have the opposite effect on the next person.
You need to test these and figure out what works.
Sometimes it feels like every priority task spins out of control. An easy way to gain a sense of control is to move to an item lower in priority. It may not be due today, tomorrow or the next day. But, you just need a “Win” and you need it Now!
Perhaps this is like an athlete that slowly progresses up through the ranks of the minor leagues vs jumping start to the majors. They need to get the “wins” under their belt so their psyche isn’t destroyed.
If you find your priorities are wreaking havoc on your psyche, pick a task you know you can win.
Then jump back into the big leagues.
What if you’ve tried a morning routine and it’s not working. You set your priorities, sit down to work and you just star at the screen on your laptop.
You’ve probably been working too hard and you’ve hit the brick wall.
Anyone working in a solo endeavor or a small team is especially susceptible to this. You’re trying to be Superman (or Wonder Woman) and you’ve reached a cognitive and possibility physical exhaustion.
You don’t have a benevolent boss forcing you to take a break. (If those even exist anymore.) It’s time for some self-care.
Put on your “boss” hat and tell yourself to take a break.
Here’s a quick recap of how to succeed with priorities.
Step 1: Get a clear picture of the end goal and which tasks could be priorities. Pick a prioritization method that suits your project.
Step 2: Learn how to truly commit and stay focused on the priorities. Everything else may need to take a back seat.
Step 3: Reset each morning and apply what you’ve learned.
Step 4: Consider the human factor and how you need to optimize your mental energy if you’re going to succeed.
The Clarity Journal is designed to help you set your 3 Priorities for each day, optimize your state of mind and capture the lessons learned. Starting each day in the journal will keep you laser focused.
If you would like a downloadable PDF version of this post, the link is below.